Slipping The Surly Bonds Of Earth:
William Samuel Henson and the Birth of Aviation
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous fifteen chapters of this series we recalled British inventor William Samuel Henson’s development of the world’s first practical airplane and establishment of his partnership with Cornelius Vanderbilt; the introduction of airplanes to modern warfare and the role of airpower in the Union’s victory in the American Civil War; the postwar breakup of the Vanderbilt-Henson alliance; the dawn of commercial flight in America; how the Civil War shaped military aviation technology and doctrine in the late 1860s and early 1870s; the birth of the famous Merlin engine and Henson’s experiments with trans-Atlantic flight in the final days of his life; the first successful trans-oceanic aircraft flights; the wave of bankruptcies that overwhelmed the aviation industry in the late 19th century; the Wright brothers’ creation of the first practical all-metal monoplane; the crucial role of airpower in the First World War and Russia’s 1917 October Revolution; the birth of the jet engine; Nazi Germany’s launching of the world’s first artificial satellite; jet combat operations in the early years of the Second World War; the Battle of Pearl Harbor; the beginning of Anglo-American cooperation in the areas of rocket science and atomic fission research; the role of jets in the battles of Wake Island and Stalingrad; the early days of the development of the US Lexington intercontinental rocket; and the Allied jet & rocket campaign against the Third Reich in the months leading up to the Overlord and Bagration offensives of 1944. In this segment we’ll examine the jet’s role in the final Allied victory in Europe; review the atomic raids on Japan which ended the Pacific war; and see the first tentative steps taken towards manned space travel in the 1950s.
Though pop culture in general-- and the movie industry in particular --have sometimes tended to exaggerate the jet’s role in the final Allied victory in Europe, it can’t be denied that combat jets were a major factor in the 1944-45 Allied campaign in western Europe starting with D-Day and continuing right up until the last pockets of Nazi resistance in Berlin were wiped out. D-Day itself, in fact, saw the largest number of tactical jet air strikes in a single day of the entire war; at Utah Beach alone, to name just one salient example, the United States Air Corps(to be redesignated United States Air Force by presidential order shortly after the war ended) flew over 1800 sorties against the Germans.
D-Day marked the baptism of fire for a new generation of jet fighters: Britain’s Hawker Hunter, a stubby but dangerous machine that gave German anti-aircraft gunners screaming fits, and the American P-86 Sabre, a sleek dagger of a plane which would truly come into its own during the latter stages of the Pacific war. Sabres and Hunters were in the thick of things from the very minute the first wave of Allied troops hit the Normandy beaches, and in the days following the invasion their role would expand along with the Allied foothold in France; in one instance, Hunters were even used to fly beer barrels to British troops.1 The Sabre in particular proved a lethal adversary for the Bf-257, knocking the German fighter out of the sky in numbers rivaling the kill totals of the RAF’s Spitfire squadrons during the Battle of Britain.
The Spitfire was busy in its own right during and after the Normandy invasion; in fact, even before D-Day the Spit had been making daylight sweeps over the French coast and flying tactical photo reconnaissance missions. By early July of 1944 Spitfires, Hunters, and Sabres were flying over Paris almost at will, and as Eisenhower’s troops advanced across western Europe these fighters would bomb and strafe German troop concentrations without pause.
At the time the Sabre and the Hunter received their baptism of fire, the jet which would turn out to be their main air combat foe in the early years of the Cold War era had already been in active service with the Red Air Force for several months. The MiG-8, introduced during the Soviet liberation of Leningrad from the Wehrmacht in January of 1944, was a slender and agile craft that would not only play a major role in Soviet air operations in the latter stages of World War II but also be used extensively by the Soviet Union and its Communist allies in the 1950s and sire a whole generation of other jet fighters including the famous MiG-17.
Bf-257 pilots who encountered the small plane for the first and expected it to be an easy target got a rude awakening when the MiG-8 wheeled upon them and tore into their machines like a wild dog. Erich Hartmann, the top-scoring German fighter ace of the Second World War, remembered with a chill his maiden clash with a MiG-8 as "the most frightening moment of my life".2 And he was one of the lucky ones in the Luftwaffe-- he not only survived his encounter but emerged from it victorious. Many of his fellow German pilots weren’t so fortunate; they usually came out on the losing end of their battles with the MiG-8, and as often as not the price they paid for defeat was their lives.
When the Red Army launched its Bagration offensive just over two weeks after the D-Day landings in France, MiG-8s provided air cover for the initial thrusts against the German lines. As Soviet ground forces advanced deeper and deeper into eastern Europe in the weeks following the assault, MiG-8 squadrons relentlessly harried the Germans both in the air and on the ground; by the time the Polish Home Army started its ill-fated uprising against the Germans in Warsaw in mid-August of 1944, one-third of all air combat kills recorded against the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front were being scored by MiG-8s.
As the Nazi war machine edged closer day by day towards its final collapse, Allied jet squadrons did everything they possibly could to hasten that collapse. Fighters strafed German military bases at every opportunity; bombers struck relentlessly at what was left of German industry; recon planes spied on the Reich day and night; and transport aircraft delivered paratroopers to drop zones behind the German lines to soften the Wehrmacht up for the advancing Allied infantry and armored units on the ground.
The jet squadrons’ attacks were supplemented by an upsurge in Allied rocket strikes. As Eisenhower’s ground troops advanced steadily further across western Europe and the Red Army battered its way through Nazi defenses in the east, those strikes would be mounted from increasingly closer firing positions. By early 1945, Berlin was being bombarded from rocket launchers inside Germany itself; ironically, one of the last American rocket barrages of the war in Europe against the Reich’s capital would be conducted from Peenemunde, the erstwhile headquarters of the Nazi rocket science program.
The chief architect of that program, Wernher von Braun, was captured by American troops in March of 1945; in his debriefings with American counterintelligence officials he disclosed a wealth of previously unknown information about German rocket development efforts. Among his most stunning disclosures: 1)slave labor from concentration camps like Auschwitz and Dachau had played a major part in the building and expansion of German rocket facilities; 2)at the time Peenemunde was overrun German rocket scientists had been on the verge of test-firing a prototype for a successor to the A-6,3 designated V-1,4 meant to be able to hit targets as far away as San Francisco.
Also captured during those final days before the Reich’s collapse were Otto Hahn and Werner Heisenberg, Germany’s most respected atomic physicists in the prewar era. Under questioning, they confirmed long-standing Allied intelligence suspicions that the Nazis had been trying to develop a working atomic bomb since the late 1930s; however, multiple technical difficulties as well as Hitler’s own inconsistent policies on atomic fission research had gotten in the way of the Heisenberg-Hahn research team’s efforts to reach this goal. By marked contrast the Allies, in spite of coming to atomic weapons development fairly late in the game, had made noticeable strides towards creating an atom bomb thanks in part to the nuclear research cooperation protocols in the Glasgow Memorandum.5
The fruit of those protocols would ripen near a small New Mexico town on a July morning just over two months after the final German surrender. Under the supervision of American atomic physicist Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the first atomic bomb was test-detonated in the desert outside Alamagordo at 7:30 AM US Eastern War Time on the morning of July 10th, 1945. The explosive force generated by that blast was equivalent to twenty thousand tons of TNT; when President Truman and his advisors heard this, they knew they had found the perfect weapon for hastening the end of the war with Japan.
While it would take until the early 1950s for scientists to devise a practical method of installing nuclear warheads on long- range rockets, the technology already existed to deploy the new weapon in air-dropped bombs. And the USAC had the perfect plane for carrying such bombs in the B-52 Ultrafortress, a sleeker and more lethal cousin of the B-47 that had been introduced into USAC service just after the Normandy invasion; with its considerable flight range and speed, it only required a slight modification to its bomb bay to be capable of delivering an atom bomb to a given target within the Japanese home islands.
And there was little chance of it being shot down; by the time of the Alamagordo test the Japanese air force was almost extinct and the Japanese army’s AA gun crews had so few munitions available to them they might as well have been unarmed. But just the same, the bomber sent to make the first atomic raid on Japan would be given fighter jet escort on general principle.
Colonel Paul W. Tibbetts, a seasoned veteran of the American jet bombing campaign against Nazi Germany, was assigned the job of commanding the first atomic bomb attack in human history; his plane, dubbed Enola Gay after his mother, would be sent to drop a single bomb on the port of Hiroshima. At 6:30 AM local time on the morning of August 3rd, 1945 Enola Gay took off from its home base on the island of Tinian accompanied by two USAC fighters, a weather plane, and an RB-476 equipped with motion picture cameras to film the A-bomb strike for posterity.
At 8:00 Hiroshima vanished in a ball of fire, officially ushering in the nuclear age. When this initial nuclear strike failed to motivate the Japanese government to surrender, a second A-bomb raid was mounted against Nagasaki on August 6th; four days after the Nagasaki bombing, Emperor Hirohito made a radio speech declaring Japan’s unconditional capitulation in accordance with the terms of the Potsdam Declaration issued by the Allied powers a month earlier. The Second World War was over.
By the time the final surrender pact between the Allies and Japan was signed on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 1st, 1945, speculation had already started on when the day might come that the world’s rocket science experts might be permitted to get back to the business of space exploration. The war hadn’t stopped the progress of spaceflight altogether but had slowed that progress down to a crawl, and people were impatient to see the first manned space mission.
However, it would take nearly five years after the end of the Second World War before the dream of sending a human being into orbit was finally realized. Candidates had to be screened, new launch facilities built and existing ones upgraded, the proper launch vehicles for a manned flight designed and assembled, and last but not least means devised for recovering the test pilots once the flight was over. Fortunately for American spaceflight aspirations, much of the technology for accomplishing these tasks was already in place as a result of the investments the Roosevelt Administration had made in rocket science before and during World War II, and Wernher von Braun-- now working behind the scenes as a consultant for NASA7 --was lending his expertise to America’s fledgling manned space program, code-named Project Mercury.
In the Soviet Union Sergei Korolev, Moscow’s chief rocket science expert since the late 1930s, was taking the lessons he’d learned from designing surface-to-surface rockets during the war against Germany and applying them to the USSR’s own manned space travel project, dubbed Vostok or "Sunrise". Like his boss, Joseph Stalin, Korolev was determined that the Soviet Union should be the first nation to send a human being into space; such a feat would not only be a triumph for Communism, he thought, it would also help keep Soviet national morale high as the USSR prepared to assume its newly won and hard-earned place in the world as a bona fide global superpower. From his office down at the Baikonur launch complex in Soviet Central Asia, Korolev oversaw the most intense aerospace research and development project Russia had yet undertaken...
The race between the United States and the Soviet Union to be the first country to put a human being in orbit ultimately came down to two men, both former fighter pilots and veterans of World War II: US Air Force major Charles Yeager, who in 1947 had set a world altitude record in the experimental X-1 rocket plane, and a Soviet air force lieutenant colonel named Ivan Kozhedub, who that same year had become the first human being ever to fly at Mach 3. In a sense it was only natural that the Soviet manned spaceflight project and its American counterpart should turn choose fighter pilots for their respective first launches; fighter jocks are, by and large, used to coping with high-pressure situations up in the air, and one could hardly get more high-pressure than taking an untried flight vehicle past the edge of the stratosphere on what Harry Truman once memorably dubbed a "spam in a can" trip.
To Be Continued...
1Who undoubtedly appreciated the service.
2Quoted from Hartmann’s 1960 autobiography I Flew For Germany.
3Germany’s principal long-range rocket for most of the Second World War and also for the final years before the war broke out(see footnotes to Part 12).
4The V in V-1 stood for Vergeltunsgwaffe("Vengeance Weapon"); it reflected Hitler’s desire to avenge the defeats the Allied powers, in particular the United States, had inflicted on the Third Reich.
5The rocket science and atomic research mutual assistance pact signed by the United States and Great Britain just after Pearl Harbor; see Part 14 for further details.
6A photo-reconnaissance variant of the B-47.
7National Aerospace Sciences Agency(see Part 13 for more information about the creation of NASA).